PORT Macquarie's Grace Symons is 100-years-old.
On February 24 she received her official letter from the Queen.
On Saturday, she will be one of the first seniors in regional New South Wales to receive a COVID vaccination.
Grace says she has seen and experienced many challenges in her life, including two world wars. And while those events can't compare to the fear and uncertainty of the current health pandemic, they do have one thing in common, she says - too many people have died.
Grace is among 130 Garden Village residents who will have the option to be vaccinated from this weekend alongside aged care staff. Healthcare Australia's clinical workforce will administer the vaccines with the support of Healthy North Coast.
The first Pfizer/BioNTech vaccinations will be rolled out across 15 residential aged care facilities - seven in Ballina/Alstonville and eight in Port Macquarie.
It is a significant milestone in the fight against the virus which has claimed the lives of more than 900 Australians, including one resident in Port Macquarie.
Grab at anything - that's what I would do. It's about those people who have been trying all along to find something that might help us. Why wouldn't you go down that path?- Grace Symonds
"I've had my ups and downs over the years. I've had all the experiences that anyone could wish to have, or not want to have," Grace said.
"I don't think you can compare anything to this pandemic. Who would have thought? I do think the work they have done for 12 months has found something to find back and maybe that's our answer.
"I don't really think you have an alternative. The thing has been so bad. So many people lost.
"Grab at anything - that's what I would do. It's about those people who have been trying all along to find something that might help us. Why wouldn't you go down that path?
"I don't know if they will knock it on the head, but it can't last forever. Nothing ever lasts forever, whether it's good or bad."
Garden Village CEO Craig Wearne said their dedicated staff are supporting residents, and their families, carers and decision makers, to make informed decisions about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
It's a personal choice for both residents and staff, Mr Wearne said.
"Garden Village, like the 2000 other aged care services and providers across Australia, have been at the forefront of COVID-19 prevention over the last 12 months," Mr Wearne said.
"Our dedicated staff have provided love and care and support to residents like Grace who call Garden Village home.
"Staff, residents and families look forward to commencing the vaccination program this Saturday.
"We have provided, over the last few weeks, a lot of information on the vaccination to enable them to make an informed decision because this is a personal choice."
Mr Wearne said he will have the vaccination because he works in a sector with older, vulnerable Australians and it is his responsibility to protect them.
Healthcare Australia has liaised with aged care providers on the number of doses required across the aged care sector.
Mr Wearne said he is confident the vaccine rollout will run smoothly.
In March, when influenza season commences again, Mr Wearne expects a public health order to be reinstated that requires anyone in contact with an aged care facility to have a flu vaccine. He said it is possible a similar approach could be implemented for the COVID vaccine.
Bron McCrae, deputy director healthy living and ageing for Healthy North Coast, said the messaging around the vaccination program and the clinical standards required has been clear and thorough.
"The residents can't wait, they want their lives back and so do their families," she said.
"There have been hiccups, but if you think logistically what this means, the work they have done and the planning that has gone into this has been mammoth. We need to be flexible and be patient until we get to the place we need to be which is being safe and being able to live again."
Family member Marlene Berlouis, daughter of Garden Village resident Maite Baillon, said it has been an emotional and difficult 12 months with limited access to her mum.
"I'm very happy I can come here and visit my mum every Saturday," Marlene said.
Her mother understood the impacts of the pandemic and was "very patient", Marlene said.
"I'm happy for her to have the vaccination and I'm happy to have mine too."
The availability of the first COVID-19 vaccines coincides with an easing of restrictions in residential aged care facilities:
- NSW residents, staff and visitors no longer need to wear masks in RACFs.
- In regional NSW, there are no longer any restrictions on visitor numbers.
- Residents can leave the facility for outings such as medical appointments or to visit locations in the community such as shops and cafes.
- In all cases, as for the general community, people should still comply with social distancing, hygiene requirements, providing contact tracing details, and restricting contact with those who have been in COVID-19 hotspots or who have symptoms.
Analysis of the North Coast regional population data shows Port Macquarie-Hastings and the Nambucca Valley LGAs have the highest proportion of over 65-year-olds making these regions a vaccine priority.
In both areas, 27 per cent of all residents are aged over 65, compared with a regional average of 23 per cent and a national average of 16 per cent.
In Kempsey and Bellingen, this age group equates for 23 per cent of the population.
When combining population size and age distribution, both Port Macquarie and Tweed Heads are the highest volume centres for aged populations.
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